Communicating in a big society – Rob Dyson guest post

Rob Dyson

Being a charity is tough right now. If the effects of stautory cuts weren’t enough, we’re criticised by some quarters for being over-reliant on a Government spoon in the first place; you deserve it, you’re a hidden tax, you’re a pawn and a fraud they say. We sometimes hear that charity workers shouldn’t take a decent salary home, and that volunteers should (and, erm, can) perform all of the specialist roles that non-profits encompass (you know, the ones that prop up public services).

We are undeniably under greater scrutiny. This in itself however isn’t the problem. Some of the critique being levelled at us is fair enough, because it demonstrates loud and clear that while we may be transparent to a degree in the pages of our annual reports, we’re not effective enough at communicating our impact and our neccessity, day to day.

After all, if we’re not distinct, with a clear USP and a demonstrable purpose, we can’t blame anyone for a) not wanting to donate to us, and b) not wanting to share our stories with their friends, blog about us, or interview us.

Borrowing from Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s excellent eponymous book, communicators and fundraisers need to leverage the web (and act offline) to become ‘trust agents’. Chris and Julien are business writers primarily, but I think what they talk about can be applied to all of us; Chris defines an agent of trust back in 2008 as someone “who use[s] the web in a very human way to build influence, reputation, awareness, and who can translate that into some kind of business value”. What a burgeoning array of non-profits are learning to do is just this: easing up on the broadcasting, and instead inviting collaboration, question-raising, inclusion and even critique. And by being human, humble and transparent in this way (in our online spaces and in our communities – and yes, even in the boardrooms of prospective corporate partners), we open up an avenue and an appetite for people to give their time and money to us.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve used Twitter to say thanks to fundraisers; congratulated families we’ve helped who’ve reached a milestone; hat-tipped corporate partners and celebrities for their support; and defended the charity against gripes and criticism. And I’ve said sorry when we’ve disappointed someone – because we’re fallible – and sought a way to recitfy issues. Same goes for Facebook.

The second thing we need to do – and there are some fantastic lessons and examples in Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s ‘Networked Non-Profit’ – is learn to let go and devolve ‘ownership’ a little bit. By lowering the fortress walls, and encouraging our supporters to tell our stories in their own way to their own audiences (family, faith networks, the friend they always bump into at the bus stop), we empower people to own us and carry us as their cause. We can be that special charity that they give to when they can, wax lyrical about, and when they’re on Facebook write “hi, thanks for being here” on the charity Page wall.

Integral to being human in our communication is telling human stories, so the most important thing to do in an era of austerity when belts are tightening and we’re trying to convince volunteers to join our ranks is to let our best storytellers speak for themselves: our users, our ‘beneficiaries’, our clients (pick your term). At Whizz-Kidz, we use Youtube a lot to give our young people a voice; handing flipcams and video cameras to kids and young adults to show and talk about things important to them and how the charity is helping to realise them. We capture in-situ photos at our clubs and camps and upload them to Flickr and invite comments and sharing. Next stage is getting some regular young bloggers to write for us.

In terms of a more traditional charity method, I was motivated to donate to a recent Crisis DM when I saw that a former homeless man they had helped had contributed to the appeal by creating the photography for the leaflet. How can our storytelling always involve and empower the people we support?

I’m honoured to be speaking at the next BeGoodBeSocial, which I’m thrilled about – and I’ll be talking a bit more about ways we can all communicate our impact a little better; even with tiny budgets. In essence, let the storytellers tell their story and don’t worry too much about controlling every aspect of them. Your potential audiences may begin to emerge to say ‘hi, thanks for being here’.

Leave A Comment